Monday, May 14, 2012

Appealing Innovation
Lego Mindstorms NXT

Introduction to Appealing Innovation

Alpha Rex
This is my first in a series of posts about innovations that I find enjoyable and very appealing.

This series is dedicated to products, services, and processes that either inspire innovation or have the possibility of changing the current world in some fashion. I must admit this series is inspired by a project that I was assigned for my Innovation Management specialization. I was tasked with choosing a product that I personally found appealing in the sense of innovation. For this project I chose the Lego Mindstorms NXT due to its ability to inspire Innovation.

Check out the video below to see just how creative you can get:


The Lego Mindstorms NXT

In 2006 Lego Robotics introduced the Mindstorms NXT a robotics development kit that could easily be enjoyed by not only children but adults as well.

 At the heart of the kit is the NXT Brick or the brains of the robot.  It has three motor ports and four sensor ports and a 32 bit processor.  The NXT brick can easily be programmed by amateurs via the NXT’s visual programming language provided by the kit on a Mac or PC. If you are looking for a bit more of a challenge when it comes to programming the NXT I would suggest using Microsoft’s Robotics Development kit. This allows hobbyists that have knowledge of programming to use a professional interface to program their creation.   Programs can then be transferred to the brick via a USB 2 port or by using Bluetooth embedded in the brick.

The other core pieces of the Mindstorms NXT were the sensors and motors. The model release in 2006 came with four sensors the offered several different functions and three motors.  The motors were servo motors that could track each positive or negative movement to very precise level of degree allowing for many sorts of motion.  The two easiest sensors to describe are the touch sensor and the sound sensor. These two sensors provide your robot with the ability to touch and hear. The next sensor is the light sensor. This sensor gave the robot the ability to determine light levels. This is used for functionality such as following a line or determining if a room is dark. Another innovative way that I used this sensor was to extend it in from of my rover robot and run it along the ground while monitoring its light level. If my rover detected an extreme change in light levels it meant that it had encountered the living room stairs in my house and needed to back up to avoid taking a tumble. The final sensor was the eyes of the system called the ultrasonic sensor. The way the ultrasonic sensor works in on par with how bats or submarines work. It sends out sound and uses the echo to determine the distance to an object.

The system also comes with instructions and programs examples to build several default robots. Although I can honestly say I never built exactly what was described because as soon as you see the default robot your immediate response is a desire to make it better.  Below are images of a few of the default robot plans that came with the system.
NXT Robots

Why Choose Lego Mindstorms NXT

There are several reasons that I chose the NXT for my first appealing innovation post. The most important being that when I think of innovation this is one of the first products that comes to mind. I have loved this product since I purchased it in late 2007 and it has inspired many hours of entertainment and pleasure for my family and I. Another very good reason for choosing this product is that it has not only won awards for innovation  it also inspires people to embrace innovation. The whole concept of the product is to come up with new ideas and improve upon designs of others as a means of promoting the core ideals of innovation.

The way the NXT was developed also makes it a prime candidate for this post due to the involvement of community members in the innovation process. The original Mindstorms product was the Robotic Invention System developed in 1998. Adult users quickly determined how to hack the brick and began using it in ways that Lego never foresaw even besting Lego’s own team of developers.  From there the community grew and when Lego decided to revive the Mindstorms name they selected four community users with knowledge that Lego lacked in house to assist in a collaborative innovation of the NXT.  The user collaboration was one of the driving factors in the success of the product as a whole. After all who better knows what your customers want than the customers themselves.

What I Like About the Mindstorms NXT

This product is absolutely amazing and I have enjoyed hundreds of hours putting different robots together and coming up with new projects to implement. There is just something about the product that inspires you to be creative and work towards the next cool development. Now to clarify this I will explain some of the things that make this product so enjoyable. First I would like to discuss my favorite aspect of this product. That is the development model used to program your robots. Starting with the NXT programming software included with the product. This visual language is simple enough that even without knowledge of programming an amateur can create a sophisticated robot that can handle many situations and you will have no lack of projects that you can accomplish if you put your mind to it. As for people that have development experience and knowledge of programming there are many products that you can use to program the NXT but the one I will mention here is the Microsoft Robotics Development SDK. This makes the NXT shine and provides a professional IDE in the way of visual studio and the power C# and Object Oriented programming to develop highly sophisticated robots. Using this you are only limited by your imagination and your programming capabilities.
LEGO NXT Visual Programming Interface
Example of Visual Programming using LEGO's Robotics Interface
The next aspect of what I love about the NXT is the community. After purchasing the NXT I would certainly suggest joining the community and looking at the projects that others have completed. I would peruse the projects and think of ways to improve them or on occasion come up with a completely new project that I could create. There are social media features that allow you to share your projects and videos of the robots you have created and even competitions for truly innovative creations. This aspect of the product really makes it shine.

Finally the original reason I purchased the NXT was as a means of getting my children interested in technology and programming. The future is technology and understanding how technology works in a fun and playful way is extremely beneficial to the education of children. Due to ignorance children by their very nature are innovative and inquisitive into the inner working of just about anything. Using a toy such as this you can channel that innovative nature and provide a means of nurturing that innovative behavior and promoting future innovation.

That being said the NXT could certainly be improved upon. I would implement several changes to make the NXT into a product that would appeal to a larger audience and at the same time add a certain level of complexity that could be harnessed by professional developers to come up with some truly unique projects.

The first change I would make is to include wireless capabilities in the system. Bluetooth is great for people that want to transfer programs to the NXT brick or for people that want to turn their smartphone into a remote control for the robot. Wireless would add feature that allow you to access your robot from anywhere on your network. For people with an understanding of networking and security this would mean from anywhere in the world literally.

The next I change I would put include in the NXT system is a webcam sensor. For advanced developers this would allow for more sophisticated sight in conjunction with the ultrasonic sensor. For more basic users when combined with the inclusion of wireless capabilities it would allow you to create the perfect remote control roving spy-bot.

Another change I would make is to adjust the size of the sensor and motor plugs on the Brick itself. Even replicating USB ports would be a benefit. This would give you the capability to add roughly 8 sensor ports and 6 motor ports. Together this would increase the capabilities of the system significantly. Take for example the roving bot that I created if my bot comes into the steps at an almost parallel angle the sensor doesn’t have time to recognize the drop and it tumbles down the steps sideways.

The final change I would make is the use of a smartphone style touch screen. Adding this to the brick would add so many capabilities to the brick that I could write a paper on this concept by itself. One great example would be an app that allows you to program the brick without a computer.

The History of Mindstorms 

As mentioned earlier Mindstorms started in 1998 with the Robotics Invention System (RIS) and immediately generated an unsuspected community of followers . The concept was based on a programmable brick developed at MIT . Lego designed it to be a toy for children but was surprised when the main market for the RIS ended up being adults. When this occurred one of the first things that occurred was that the brick was hacked by the community and creating projects that Lego had never imagined possible with the product. This lead to a serious conundrum Lego’s first reaction was to involve its lawyers but then decided to embrace this new community of adult engineers.

The choice to embrace this community benefitted Lego in 2006 when they decided to renew the Mindstorms brand. In 2005 Lego selected four engineers from the community to involve them in the innovation process to create the Lego NXT system. It was this embracing of the community that made NXT the success that is not only in the leisure robotics market but in the educational robotics market as well. They also implemented MUP the Mindstorms User Panel . This panel consisted of users selected by Lego to collaborate in the innovation process of the NXT.

Even today with the newer NXT 2.0 the Mindstorms community is quite active and promotes contests and conventions to continue to develop interest in the Mindstorms products.
I have yet to find a robotics creation system that matches Lego in ease of use for all ages. There are a few higher level products such as Vex but in my opinion nobody offers anything close when it comes to this type of system.

Mindstorms Financial Impact on Lego

This was the most difficult aspect of this project as I wasn’t able to find any hard numbers on the sales of Lego Mindstorms NXT. The only relevant information I could find about NXT was that according to the 2006 Lego annual report it exceeded all expectations. It won the parent’s choice award in 2006  and was one of the most desired toys in 2006 just behind the Nintendo Wii . As you can imagine being listed at number six this product certainly had an impact on Lego’s bottom line.

Even though I was not able to find hard numbers on the NXT I was able to find them for the Mindstorms RIS. Given the level of user driven innovation and the awards won by the NXT it is safe to assume that it performed almost as well as the RIS which was Lego’s bestselling product ever   with over one million units sold at $200 dollars a pop that accounts for at least $200 million dollars in sales revenue. This bodes well for the financial future of the Mindstorms line of products and it is safe to say that given Mindstorms success throughout the years it certainly has a significant impact on the Lego Corporation.

The Future of Lego Mindstorms and the Key Lessons to this Lines Success

Lego Mindstorms NXT has an almost cult like set of followers and their decision to integrate with their Mindstorms community has promoted this to no end. This is a major factor in the success of this line of products. By allowing their customers the freedom to hack the bricks of the RIS system Lego took a large step forward in the collaboration between the organization and its customers. Then to take it one step further Lego later involved their Mindstorms community in the innovation process of the next generation of the Mindstorms line the NXT. As long as Lego continues to follow this trend of customer collaboration it significantly reduces its risk. After all who better knows what they want than the customers themselves.

The one threat I think that Lego need to avoid to maintain this success though is the continued advancement of this product and a dedication to maintaining the line of products. The recent release of the new Lego Mindstorms NXT 2.0 didn’t see many changes to the core system but it did have some improvements such as a color sensor instead of the light sensor and a gyroscopic sensor. With RIS developed in 1998 and the NXT released eight years later Lego needs to understand that this is a technology product and technology changes rapidly you cannot wait eight years to release the next generation model if you choose to grow this market.

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